Thursday, January 01, 2015

Culture: the dance

Now, I'm no expert on culture, no analyst, no academic -- just a person who is of a culture, who has noticed it even when I can't define and describe it all, and who does have a preference for it.  I don't claim it is all wonderful, or should be static, or anything else.  But I like having a culture, and I prefer to interact with other people who share that culture.  I don't think I'm alone in that -- I only think I'm more honest about that.  It always feels like a relief to share the same culture.

First, anyone who says anything even remotely like "People from around here" (fill in the blank) can go to blazes, and I don't care if you are filling in that blank with something derogatory or complementary.  But there is a culture.  It moves and changes slowly as you move around the area.  The culture doesn't determine political or religious or lifestyle preference, although culture, the culture I'm talking about, is more common in older country folk.

Nope, culture is really a dance:  how we relate and talk (or don't talk) to each other about specific things, how we dance together.

Now, I know how to be very direct.  I know how to communicate to be clearly understood if I really need to although a lot of the time I will decide that it isn't worth doing so, because most of the time if you have to get really clear with someone, they get really mad, or already were mad and just not being honest about it.  But I prefer the dance.

The not being direct thing is the first thing I think about Southern Appalachian cultural communication.  I was listening to Mountain Stage one time, and I don't know who this was and it was a long time ago but he was an Irish musician who was touring the states and had been in upstate NY or somewhere and told this story about it.  He was at someone's house.  They'd asked him if he wanted a cup of tea.  He'd said "No thanks."  And he'd never been so surprised in his life that he didn't get a cup of tea!

Because, you see, the dance you do is that, in order to be polite, you say "no thanks" even if you are dying of thirst!  There might be several more steps to the dance before you get to you both having a cup of tea (or coffee) together.  And you could say "please, thank you," and that would be fine but it isn't as polite as saying "no thanks" and people would know you weren't from around here, at least not culturally.

One of the backgrounds on this cultural thing is that the north has the culture of the Anglo-Saxons, while the South has a Celtic culture.  Clashes between these cultures?  How many of them can you name?  Honestly, it is because the Anglos always think they are better and are gonna change the Celts, and no, in fact, they aren't.

Another culture example that comes to mind is the time Alecto came to see us and her yuppie machine's engine light came on and she wanted the dealership to check it out before she went back.  (I solve this problem generally by simply not driving that far away from home and not driving anything that any "dealership" would touch anyway.)  So we found the number to the dealership and she called.  "I need service," she said, and I cringed, knowing there was no way they'd get her in today for that.  In this culture, you tell your story.  You might want to try to do it succinctly, but you tell your story.  "I'm a woman, I'm a long way from home, I'm concerned, could you find it in your hearts to check this out for me?"  Minimal.  Personally I'd say, "How ya doin'?" too.  I know people who get away with not doing that stuff, but they are mostly considered rude and they don't get a lot of favors either.

And really, that is what community is; favors.  Everyone obligated to everyone else.  If it is working well, everyone tries to give everyone else a good deal and everyone feels obliged to everyone else.  What does NOT work is for someone to attempt to be the Patron, the oligarch, the Lord -- sometimes I think there may be a genetic memory of serfdom where freemen learned to trust only other freemen.

Over the years I've noticed a lot of cultural things around money.  Like in the neighborhood, if there is money to be exchanged, the bargain is driven mostly by the men, even though in at least half of households the disbursement is done by the womenfolk.  When I am handed a check or money to be paid for work I've done or am going to do, it is always handed to me face up so I can examine it.  I always fold it without examining it.  If we have formally settled on an exchange, it will be there.  If it isn't, there is some misunderstanding that is best addressed after consideration.  If we have not formally settled on an exchange, if I am in fact depending on "generosity", if the exchange is generous, I will do it again next time I am asked -- and if it is not, I will not.  But it will get done this time anyway.

Plus, in community  exchange is made equitable in many different ways.

One thing that I noticed more recently was this:  Don't push.  That would be a part of indirectness I suppose but it was more specific than that.  The specific was that my "hay guy" might well not have as much hay for me to buy as I will need, and so would this other guy let go of any of his hay to me?  But it was still December, and not much hay has been fed yet, and no one will hurt their own animals feeding yours (nor should they) and will they have enough hay themselves?  So I told him first that I might be short and I'd appreciate it if he could think of anyone who might have some extra.  A couple weeks later I asked if he knew anyone or not.  Now I know, he IS someone.  He knows he IS someone.  But the thing is, if I push it and need an answer, a commitment, now, that answer will be "No."  I think that is because a commitment is a commitment, your word is your word.

And I think this little quality here is often why it seems to people that this is the land of maƱana, of procrastination -- because in many ways it IS but it is because that works better.  Things don't always work out the way you think they will so you wait -- on commitments, on getting stuff done.  You wait.

Hay, you see, will be much easier to let go of toward the end of February than in the middle of December.  But if I push and get a "no" now, I won't get any hay in March either.  But if I leave it open, just let the need be known, I know that this person is my friend and will do his best to help me one way or the other.  So you have all these other factors in there -- vulnerability and trust and caring at the least.  Demanding a commitment, however, means that you don't leave yourself vulnerable and you don't have to trust that they care for you either.  Demanding that is business and not community.  There is a lot of overlap in business and community but there are also differences.  There are certainly people in my community who I will only do business with -- who I will not humble myself to by being vulnerable to them.  But the richness of my community is the people I will be vulnerable to, who I would hurt myself for. 

Don't push is part of the dance of culture, of how we relate.  I wouldn't say it has anything to do with how we treat each other -- people get treated relatively the same, as in 'not cheated' and the like, but you know you will go further out of your way for friends, and it is easier to be friends with people who know the same dances you do.

I will always remember our old neighbor, slave to the military-industrial complex job, Brian.  I will always remember when Delmer up the holler stopped by to talk to him, just chew the fat, and then stopped at our place to chew the fat with us.  And all Delmer said was, "What the hell is wrong with that boy?"  Brian moved on to the next job site.  Delmer died in his home up the holler last year.

We did, of course, indulge in collards and black eyed peas and a piece of pork for New Year's Day!  Hope we ALL have good years!  And dance the dances that matter well.

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